Boston officials have issued new rules requiring groups to get additional approval before they can legally protest or hold other public events during the week of the Democratic National Convention.
Civil liberties groups and Boston's main police union object that the application process, set up by the city exclusively for the week of the convention, will compromise their right to free speech. They say that Boston officials have erected a bureaucratic maze that will complicate and extend the process of getting approval.
"They're creating a lot more of a hassle for people who want to come and exercise their political rights during the convention," said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. "They're not creating a friendly, welcoming image of the city. They're increasing the bureaucracy."
The Massachusetts chapters of the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild will hold a press conference near the FleetCenter tomorrow to highlight their concerns over the city's plans for protesters at the convention, which will be held July 26-29.
They are also upset that the city has not moved its proposed protest zone, which the ACLU and the lawyers guild argue does not meet court requirements that protests be allowed "within sight and sound" of demonstrators' intended audience.
Yesterday, members of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, which has been battling Mayor Thomas M. Menino over stalled contract talks, also voiced anger over the city's new requirements for convention protesters. At a demonstration at the FleetCenter involving several city unions, officers said the city is trying to stop their voices from being heard.
Thomas J. Nee, the patrolmen's association president, accused Menino of "stripping us of our liberties and our First Amendment rights." The police union has promised to protest outside the convention if they are still working without a contract when Democrats convene to nominate their presidential candidate.
City officials say they are not trying to stop any groups from protesting. The revised guidelines are the best way to handle what is promising to be a hectic week in Boston, officials argue.
The extra layer of approval the city is adding for the convention is only intended to provide a central agency to help guide protesters and event planners through what is normally a complicated permitting process, said Patricia Malone, director of the city's consumer affairs and licensing department. She added that the changes will help the city to keep a handle on all events being planned for Boston the week of the convention, for public safety reasons.
"We're trying to help them, and we're trying to expedite the process," Malone said. "It allows one person to tell you what steps you need to take to get your event permitted. It's really set up for efficiency and so the city has a comprehensive view of every single thing every single department has to do that week."
Under the existing system, groups planning demonstrations in the city apply directly to the city agencies from which they need approval. For instance, permits for a parade are obtained from the Boston Transportation Department and the Boston Police Department, with the entire process wrapped up in less than 72 hours.
For the week of the convention, applications for public events first must be processed by the city's Office of Consumer Affairs and Licensing, which could take as long as 14 days. Then applicants must take their paperwork to individual departments for authorization. When that process is complete, they will be required to return to Consumer Affairs and Licensing for final approval.
Under the city's convention-week guidelines, applications can be rejected for reasons including a scheduling conflict with a previously planned city event, an applicant's outstanding debt to the city, or "unreasonable danger to the health and safety" of the public. Malone said her office can always reject applications for those reasons, but they have not previously been listed formally by the city. The formal list is being provided to avoid misunderstandings and confusion, she said.
Malone said the city is merely formalizing several normally informal steps for the benefit of out-of-towners not familiar with the local bureaucracy and to help the city keep tabs on all public events.
Despite the city's official estimate of weeks, permit approvals should require only a few days in most cases, she said. And if planners see their first choices for times and places snatched by other groups, she said, her office will recommend other possibilities.
"I don't think it's going to hold anyone up," Malone said. "It won't be a big issue."
Critics of the new guidelines say they give the city wider discretion to deny permits and extend the process from what is currently about three days to as much as a month. Officials with the lawyers guild and the patrolmen's association said they are considering taking legal action against the city if their concerns are not addressed.
"It's ridiculous and outrageous," said Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. "Everyone is very frustrated with how the city is handling this. They've changed the system completely for this one week during the convention."
Several groups that applied for protest permits earlier in the year are being forced to resubmit their applications, under the guidelines for convention week announced two weeks ago. The Bl(a)ck Tea Society, a group of anarchists and antiauthoritarians, applied in March for two major convention-week marches and an all-day festival on Boston Common. The group's representatives say they now fear the city won't let them protest.
"They don't want to give anybody the opportunity to speak," said Elly Guillette, a Bl(a)ck Tea Society member. "I almost feel like they're working for [Senator John F.] Kerry's campaign."
Malone said that no applications will be denied based on the messages groups want to deliever. She said the city is operating on a first-come, first-served basis for times and places of public events. Though groups that have already applied will have to resubmit applications under the new guidelines, they will have first rights to the slots they have requested, she said.
Rose of the ACLU blasted the city for waiting so long before finalizing its plans for protesters. With about 80 days left before the convention, protesters say they are still waiting on the city to finalize plans for the location of a designated protest zone, making it nearly impossible to make specific plans for protests.
"They can't seem to get their act together," Rose said. "You cannot apply if you don't know what's going to be open."
Planners have said they expect thousands of protesters to arrive for the convention, staging protests, marches, and rallies throughout the city.
In Los Angeles, where Democrats held their convention in 2000, the city kept in place its regular event-permitting process for the week of the convention. But that process was deemed too restrictive, and the city was forced to relax permitting rquirements after civil liberties groups challenged them in court. A federal judge ordered Los Angeles to establish a protest area closer to the convention site just weeks before the 2000 convention was to begin.*
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